Do Honey Bees Need Their Own Lobbyists?

Beekeepers hope that by getting involved in state politics they can help save these important pollinators.


Beekeepers in Maryland have had a devastating few years. Last year, they lost nearly 61 percent of their bees; the year before it was nearly 50 percent.

Pointing to a growing consensus in the scientific community about pesticides’ impacts on honey bees and other pollinators, beekeepers in the state have worked with environmental groups to effect local policy. Last week, the Maryland state legislature passed the Pollinator Protection Act, which would ban consumers from buying pesticides that contain “neonics” beginning in 2018.

While the bill won’t affect the agriculture industry directly, it was opposed by the state’s Farm Bureau and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Farmers will still be able to use seeds treated with neonics and the language in the bill that would have required labeling of such seeds was removed. But the beekeepers—who made appearances at the state house in Annapolis wearing their beekeeping gear—are celebrating. And the governor is expected to sign the bill. 

From pesticide use to permits, groups are taking their case to state lawmakers, because they’ve realized the best way to ensure pollinators get the attention they need is to sit at the table with the people making policy. And while a federal bill to address Colony Collapse Disorder called the Saving Americas Pollinators Act was introduced in 2015, it hasn’t made headway since.

In Washington state, where the fruit trees are blooming, beekeeper Tim Hiatt works late into the night, moving hives from orchard to orchard so that the bees wake up to fresh pollen and nectar and do their job.

Hiatt, 50, is a commercial beekeeper from the middle of the state who took over the business from his father. “It’s been more challenging every year, and that’s been part of the fun,” he says. Every year, Hiatt provides pollination services to more farmers, and has to work harder to keep his bees healthy. But he likes knowing he’s helping farmers who “depend on us for pollination.”

In Washington, where growers produced 6.3 billion pounds of apples last year, there’s plenty of work for honey bees and other pollinators. That’s reason enough to give attention to the issues impacting their health, Hiatt says. He estimates he loses 35 percent of his bees every year, which is about the national average, he says. On top of the environmental concerns that raises, Hiatt spends a lot of time explaining the consequences of the loss to growers.

But, he’s reached a point where he believes trying to sway individual farmers isn’t enough. Leading the legislative committee of the Washington State Beekeepers Association, Hiatt and others have set their sights on the statehouse in Olympia.

For one thing, despite the massive number of pollinators needed in the state, there isn’t enough forage to go around. WASBA lobbied for, and the legislature passed, a new pilot program that will change the way the state’s Noxious Weed Control Board handles invasive species. While they may be noxious, many of the plants the board uproots provide good forage for pollinators and getting rid of them takes away from honey bees. Under the program, the state will promote replacing the weeds with more bee-friendly plants instead.

“It’s kind of a last resort—having to go to the state to ask for things to change,” Hiatt says. “Beekeepers prefer to be left alone to tend their bees. However … we’ve seen the legislature can do some things to help bees and beekeepers. So we plan to stay engaged.”

Beekeeper Handling HivesBeekeepers Getting Organized in Other States

Ongoing conversations about the effects of pesticides speak to the universal concern beekeepers share for how pollinators are impacted by chemical use in agriculture.

With beekeepers losing 40 to 50 percent of their bees each year, pesticides are a “huge, huge issue,” says Chris Moore of Moores Honey Farm near Houston who is also the president of the Texas Beekeepers Association.

If signed, Maryland’s pesticide law would be the first state to ban consumer use of the type of pesticide that’s believed to harm bees. And a California bill introduced in March would make certain neonicotinoids available only to trained professionals and require seeds and plants sold in nurseries to carry labels if treated.  

But on a state-by-state basis, apiarists are also tackling issues that go beyond pesticides.

In Texas, they’re working on changes to permitting and protocols for disease outbreaks in addition to pushing for state-wide standards to combat what they say is food fraud.

Moore says state license and permitting is complicated and requires him to get a new permit each time he ships his bees in and out of the state. A policy change could cut down the paperwork to one permit each year instead of nearly 10. And updates to old laws would require state inspectors to consult with a committee of beekeepers before quarantining or destroying hives if ever a new disease breaks out.

He’s particularly enthusiastic about an effort to regulate claims on labels. Honey producers can’t take advantage of the higher prices that fit the demand for their product because they’re competing with low prices set by producers who he believes are misrepresenting themselves.

“When you sell honey as local but it comes from Mexico, that’s just fraud, ” says Moore

In Pennsylvania, beekeepers make up an advisory board to the Department of Agriculture—a group that was resurrected about four years ago. Best management practices outlined by the committee have been used in zoning decisions in cities and towns across the state. In two meetings a year, beekeepers get a chance to discuss issues and stay informed of business from around state government.

“And it keeps us on their radar. They know we’re paying attention,” says Charlie Vorisek, president of that state’s beekeepers association.

Honey Bee on Blossoming Flower

Bee Lobbyists

Key to making the case for pollinators in Washington is connecting the dots to the impacts on agriculture, advocates say.

Tim Johnson, a professional business lobbyist, started working with WASBA after one of his clients, a beekeeper, asked him to look at a couple of proposed bills. He soon realized WASBA really needed his help. He now lobbies for them officially.

“This system really isn’t kind to people who aren’t there in person,” Johnson says. Additionally, the first attempt to pass the bee forage preservation bill was blocked by lawmakers who thought it was anti-agriculture.

Hiatt, who primarily talks to legislators over email, acknowledges that the bill probably failed because apiarists didn’t do enough to make their case to the agriculture lobby.

While they had the support of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, they were opposed by dozens of Republicans who thought there was some sort of “evil next step” to the bill, Johnson says. With his help, they made some tweaks and reintroduced the bill, which cleared both houses in March and will take effect in June.

Johnson says he guided WASBA down a more “politically viable” path.

“The agriculture community is very powerful. When they see a prospective legislation … they can take a defensive posture,” Johnson says. “I didn’t see us having much of a chance of running headlong into the legislature with demands and mandates.”

With conventional agriculture on their side, beekeepers can focus more on confronting ignorance. As Johnson lobbied for the Washington to renew funding for more research to help uncover what’s hurting bees and how to address it, he kept finding legislators who didn’t have a clue how much the state relies on pollinators. When Johnson starts to talk to them about honey bees, he says they often look relieved at first, as if they believe it will be a lighter conversation than they often have. But once he makes the stakes clear, they usually realize their error.

“I can’t imagine a farmer losing 30 percent of his crop mysteriously and it not being a crisis,” Johnson says. “Bees tend to get trivialized … I’m trying to impress upon them that this is very serious.”

Photos: hive by Shutterstock/; beekeeper by Shutterstock/; fruit tree by Shutterstock/.

View Comments

  1. Thursday, April 14th, 2016
    Two years ago neonics were "definitely" the cause of of bee loses. last year neonics were "likely" associated with bee losses. This year neonics are 'believed' to be associated with bee loses.

    Hopefully by next year the well executed science that shows neonics are, at worst, a minor threat to bee loses will finally be the main story line.

    Vorroa mites and the associated diseases they transmit are definitely the number one threat.
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